National Covenanting: A Realistic Solution for the Economy?

I’ve been thinking about the current economic crisis, and whether the Covenanter doctrine of National Covenanting is for such a time as this. I thought I would post some of those thoughts here to invite discussion from anyone interested—mostly as an exercise in thinking through the practical application of that biblical doctrine we call, “National Covenanting.”

Different branches of the church often have certain doctrines that are special to them. In his providence, God gives one heritage of his people historical experiences that lead them to sharpen their development of one doctrine, while another branch of the church (through its historical experiences) are compelled to wrestle with other doctrines. There is benefit to the church as a whole, when we learn from the contributions various branches of the church have to make in our common effort to grow in the richness of the biblical faith.

In the Reformed Presbyterian Church (the body in which I serve), the experiences of the Scottish Second Reformation forced our spiritual forefathers to give particular attention to the biblical doctrine of “National Covenanting.” A couple helpful examples of the practice can be found in 2 Chr. 15 and Neh. 9–10. In these and other biblical examples, God’s people gathered from across the land during times of spiritual and social crisis. They then entered into a carefully articulated confession of sins, with a joint resolution to cry out to God for his mercy, and a society wide commitment to reform the land with specified national changes based on God’s law. Biblically, such national covenanting was a powerful means for reformation. It was also a practice which the Scottish Covenanters (the heritage of the Reformed Presbyterian Church) observed in the 16th and 17th centuries with great blessings.

But what would it look like if we practiced National Covenanting, today? Under what kinds of conditions would it be appropriate to draw up such a document? It is one thing to point back in history to those who exercised this often overlooked biblical practice; it is another to think about what it would look like to practice the same, still.

National Covenanting is something I believe in biblically, but when and how to implement such a discipline (realistically) seems complicated. Perhaps the greatest hindrance to National Covenanting today is the fact that there is no unified, National Church. The church in our society is so divided; there is no single, church court where such a united confession of sin and reform could be prayerfully worked out. That is a huge obstacle.

Nevertheless, assuming for a moment that the church in America were healthy enough to unify around such a biblical discipline, under what kind of circumstances would a National Covenant be appropriate? I wonder if the current economic crisis would be the kind of setting in which such a practice might be duly observed.

As I follow the news, there is a lot of blame for the economic crisis being thrown around. Democrats blame Republicans (“We had a surplus under Clinton; things fell apart under George W. Bush’s spending spree”). Republicans blame Democrats (“Too many government programs and too much taxing of ‘job creators’”). And so on. But surely this is the kind of crisis which has been brought on, not by a political party, but by a culture-wide delusion.

As a society, we wanted to believe that cash flow (rather than cash in the bank) was the mark of wealth. We wanted to believe that we could start living, right out of college, at the standard of living our career income would eventually catch up with (rather than waiting to earn that standard of living over time). We, as a nation, liked the idea that the American Dream (nice house, two cars, etc.) was something we could start enjoying now and pay for as we go (rather than saving up for it). In short, there is a whole host of fantasies about how money works which we, as a culture, embraced. This was not a shift in economic thinking hoisted upon us by Republicans or by Democrats; it was a dream about how we wanted the economy to work that was embraced by both political parties, promoted from Hollywood, adopted by universities, adapted to by banks and mortgage companies and businesses, and by which we as a society started to live. In short, it was the kind of shift in belief which the Old Testament law calls “an unintentional congregational sin” (Lev. 4:13)—a sin adopted in fantasaical ignorance for which the whole society bears guilt.

We, as a society (including, the Christian community within this society), bought into a whole series of false ideas about economics and life. But the truth is the truth, and no matter how united we are as a society in how we want things to work, eventually the way things really work catches up. And alas, payday has come.

Thankfully, there are many energetic politicians endeavoring to find ways to fix some of the errors incorporated into our banking and mortgage systems. I’m not smart enough on economics to evaluate how well political and institutional leaders are doing (or which ones are right where there are heated disagreements). But, is this not the kind of setting in which the church (if we were united enough to do so) should also be identifying the congregational sins we have accepted in order to make a united, national covenant of repentance and reform? The problems in American society (for simplicity, I’m only addressing our economic troubles at the moment) will not be fixed simply with institutional changes. Popular attitudes toward money and luxury also has to change. I hear politicians admit that, time and time again. But politicians are powerless to bring that kind of reform. Confronting hearts is the role of the church. Adapting systems is all the state can do.

If the church was more united, and if the church and state had a proper relationship (touching on another, cherished Covenanter doctrine), perhaps this would be the kind of setting in which the State would continue its systemic reforms, while the Church would draw up a national covenant of social and religious reform. Such a National Covenant would not be drawn up as a pious document to frame and hang on the wall, but as a real working text that gives preachers guidance for preaching against these sins across the land, giving people a charge to join their hearts in a common confession of true faith and repentance, that we might seek God’s mercy.

I try to be optimistic, but personally I am pretty pessimistic about our government being able to reverse this present economic slope. In part, because the current economic decline is just the symptom of a much broader social decline. But also, because changing economic systems is important, but somehow we have to change peoples’ hearts and attitudes. And government is simply powerless to do what is really the job of the church to do: to preach with “thou shalt” authority to the consciences of men. If a nation like America in a pickle like our current economic slump, is to experience a truly effective recovery, it seems to me it would have to come from a cooperative reformation of both economic systems (led by the State) and reformation of hearts (led by the Church). And that is the place where the biblical practice of National Covenanting seems to fit nicely.

What do the rest of you think? Especially my fellow Reformed Presbyterians who (like me) have heard the stories of the Scottish Covenanters and who hold to the doctrine of Covenanting: is this the kind of scenario in which National Covenanting (ideally) moves out of the pages of theology books and into the living faith and practice of a nation?

By the way, I fully appreciate the fact that ultimately national repentance will have to deal with our sins of idolotry and rejection of Christ. Economic sins are by no means the heart of our society’s troubles. But it is money that gets people’s attention, and the economic crisis seems to be what is opening the doors for thoughts about reform. Would this be the kind of setting in which a more unified, national church would draw up a National Covenant?

What do you think?

9 Comments

  1. Kurt And-Shelley Fiech October 27, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    I have to take exception to your very first declaration: “Different branches of the church often have certain doctrines that are special to them. In his providence, God gives one heritage of his people historical experiences that lead them to sharpen their development of one doctrine, while another branch of the church (through its historical experiences) are compelled to wrestle with other doctrines.” There is no such Scriptural evidence for this that I see. There has always been ONE people of God. ONE body of Christ. There is no evidence of any “branches” of God’s people. Can you support your declaration thru Scripture?

  2. Kurt And-Shelley Fiech October 27, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    “I’m not smart enough on economics to evaluate how well political and institutional leaders are doing (or which ones are right where there are heated disagreements).” Then you and I need to become “smart enough on economics” in order to help with a solution. This “smart enough” means understanding economics – God’s way – as revealed in Scripture. Someone has been studying this for decades. We may want to start here: Capitalism & the Bible http://www.garynorth.com/public/department57.cfm

  3. Michael LeFebvre October 27, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    Thanks for the economics link, Kurt. And on your first comment: I agree wholeheartedly. There is, as you state, no biblical basis for the church’s division into “branches.” In fact, in the Testimony of the RP Church, we explicitly confess that the division of the church into denominations is ultimately due to sin (RPT 25.14). I did not intend to imply that such divisions are part of God’s moral will, simply that (within his providence) it is the way things are. Thanks for highlighting that important point.

  4. Tim Bloedow October 28, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Great thought-provoking piece, Pastor LeFebvre. More than anything else I think economics/money reveals the condition of our hearts, so a call to a National Covenant could be a powerful Gospel call in the current environment. Others say that America is not as far down the road as Europe, and Europe arguably had an even greater legacy of Christendom than America, so it has fallen much further, yet without repentance, so barring God’s gracious intervention, America could still fall much further before things get better. On a couple of your secondary points. 1) I too am a reader of Gary North and the first thing that came to mind as you were listing the problems with people’s more recent economic behaviour was what North always summarizes as the desire people have to get something for nothing. I have a hard time labelling that an unintentional sin (Lev. 4:13). The social effects are the result of every individuals’ decisions to choose greed and envy over righteous thinking and decisions. 2) I’ve been thinking about your point re. the lack of unity around something like this due to denominationalism, but in a different context. I’ve been delving into Canadian history to understand the Christian impact. We became a nation about a century after America. The impact of Christianity in the West was already in the decline. Much Presbyterian influence was not Gospel-oriented. Methodism was very prominent. We had some Anglican leaders who tried to preserve Christian Establishment principles in Canada, but such attempts caused so much conflict because other denominations would accept another denomination as speaking for the whole church, so Establishment was seen as a sectarian perspective. So as Christians today look back in our history for Christian influence to commend, many Canadian Christians look back to those such as George Brown, a Scottish Presbyterian, but a committed (classical) liberal who strongly opposed Establishment principles, instead promoting equality of religious influence by separating church/state relations, equal access to education through a gov’t financed non-sectarian model (in this, he joined forces with the prominent Methodist clergyman, Ryerson. Better historians than me have noted the unitarian influence on Ryerson from the U.S.) But in studying these things, I can’t help but think that if Establishment is the Biblical approach – and National Covenanting too – then the fact that we can’t advance these principles in a denominational context is a picture to us of the evil of denominationalism, and evidence that denominationalism is bringing God’s judgment onto a backslidden church. And if that’s the case, then to advance these other Biblical principles, if we’re serious about them, we maybe have to think about a more direct way of speaking out against denominationalism and in a more consistent and public way, calling the Church back to unity. It seems so many of us have become so accustomed to denominationalism that we don’t think much of it anymore, and it is just part of the background as we go about our religious business.

  5. Tim Bloedow October 30, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    http://reformedcovenanter.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/thomas-hobart-no-national-covenanting-no-national-revival/?mid=5178

    Thomas Hobart: no national covenanting, no national revival

    [N]ational covenanting is the fruit of genuine revival of national religion, and that in Christian lands where national covenanting is not observed there is no evidence that national religion has been really revived. Some, we are aware, speak slightingly of covenanting times, but were you to blot out from the history of Zion all the accounts of covenanting times, you would blot out from her history all the accounts of genuine revival times [...]

    Thomas Hobart, National covenanting a national privilege: a sermon, preached in the Rev. J. Chancellor’s church, Belfast (Perth, 1874), p. 14.

  6. Pastor Brad Johnston November 11, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Thanks for the thought-provoking presentation, Michael. I read your article a couple of weeks ago, but was reminded of it again as I listened to Dave Ramsey, a guy from a very different tradition, apply God’s Word to the present financial situation.
    Take a listen here, especially at 00:37:25. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKohvK4dqW0&feature=player_embedded#!
    “When people decide to do things God’s ways, it unjoints everything, and it can cause revival. What if because the church was the place where people went for [a solution to financial hopelessness] What if because of that the church earned the right to speak into people lives, because we learned to love them well. I think that if enough of us did that at the same time, that revival could break out. “

    • timbloedow November 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

      Until National Covenanting is appreciated, here’s another idea that Chuck Colson mentioned today that looks like it’s taking place in or around Pittsburgh: http://www.graceperiod.org/jointhemovement/green_mile/index.html . Providing poor people with an alternative to usurious payday loan outfits.

      • Michael LeFebvre November 11, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

        Tim, thanks for adding that link to “Grace Period.” There is a payday-advance outfit just a mile or two down the road from me, and every time I pass it I grieve at how such operations take advantage of people in their desperation. It is the kind of situation that got Nehemiah pretty upset in Neh. 5. It’s neat to see the model that ministry is setting before us with a challenge to replicate it elsewhere.

  7. Kurt And-Shelley Fiech November 11, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    Dave Ramsey is good on dealing with personal debt but is lacking in dealing with business debt or investments. Read here: http://bit.ly/DaveRamseyShortcomings

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